Review: ‘Turret’ by A Red Orchid is Michael Shannon doing his intense best work

Levi Holloway and Michael Shannon, a killer combination if ever Chicago theater produced one, have been to the big time and come back, formidable of craft but ever in search of intimate substance. Shannon’s career has taken him from the back room of an Old Town bar to a major Hollywood career and two Academy Award nominations. Holloway’s last play for A Red Orchid Theatre, “Grey House,” went to Broadway last summer.

Both have returned this spring to A Red Orchid, which has accommodated both the needs of Holloway’s dystopian but darkly comic play, “Turret,” and Shannon’s box office pull by moving to a larger space at the Chopin Theatre in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.

The resulting production is really something: I’ve watched Shannon on stage and screen for some 30 years and this performance is right up there with his best work, especially when it comes to his longstanding ability to dissect masculinity and reveal one of those men who feels deeply but so lacks the language of emotional vulnerability that his communication skills are authoritarian at best and, at worst, bestial.

In the case of Holloway’s phenomenally rich piece of writing, one of many plays and screenplays penned during the panicked pandemic that imagines with notable veracity a scenario where the world no long functions in civilized fashion, those common male failings have a powerful impact on a young person, played by Travis A. Knight with an intensity to match Shannon’s own paternalistic work. Knight clearly is playing a a surrogate son.

Simply put, “Turret” is a searing drama about a loving son and his alcoholic father hidden within a dystopian genre play about two men stuck in an underground bunker when the world above has ceased to exist. Look closely, though, and all of that falls away, as these two actors clearly understand. Love, after all, is the most tested in these kinds of circumstances.

We never entirely find out why the world has ended, except that there has been some kind of war and we are watching the fate of the losers. If you’ve seen “The Last of Us,” “Civil War” or especially “Leave the World Behind,” you will have a flavor of the ambiance: a heavy protective door, anxious looks at the ruinous situation outside, enemies in the trees above, physical and mental things done to pass the time, personal meltdowns, technological meltdowns and a return to the analog.

But Holloway is a far more minimalist writer than the writers of those works and “Turret” is sparse and taut and cagey of divulging information. The two men, Shannon’s Green and Knight’s Rabbit, aren’t short of resources in their bunker and they still have a kind of wacky MS-DOS system to allow them to communicate, especially as Rabbit runs on the treadmill that dominates Grant Sabin’s epic setting. They’re in a pseudo-military relationship, it seems, and Green boozes from the many bottles on the set. They’re a team, heck, an entire world, alternately needy and aggressive, sweet and violent, highly functional and a total disaster for each other.

There’s another rub, too. Someone arrives from outside. The less you know about Birdy, played by Lawrence Grimm, the better, except to know that Grimm, a stalwart of this theater, is doing the best work of his career.

I suspect that has a lot to do with Holloway directing his own work. Typically, that’s not a great idea, but when a vision for a metaphoric landscape is this precise, metaphoric and detailed, it can be desirable for the writer to get precisely what he wants, what he envisages in his head without some other competing vision in the way. This is a heavily scored piece from sound designer Jeffrey Levin, and every beat and bang and thump and piece of music has been thought out with uncommon precision. The level of production here exceeds anything I’ve seen at A Red Orchid these last many years, and that is no small compliment given that theater’s decades of creative achievements.

It hard needs stating that it is not every day at an off-Loop theater you can see an actor of Shannon’s caliber, or one willing to dive so deep for this kind of story in this kind of theater.

The script needs some attention late in the second act, where one major narrative twist doesn’t fully make sense and the sudden advent of shorter scenes throws the production off its otherwise exquisite internal rhythm. But as was the case with “Purpose,” the Steppenwolf drama now likely going to Broadway, that is a minor concern. “Turret” is another example, coming hard upon, of Chicago theater at its very best. You would not want to miss the chance.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

Review: “Turret” (4 stars)

When: Through June 9

Where: Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Tickets: $70 at 312-943-8722 and